Saturday, 7 February 2009
ILLUSION AND REALITY OF DISABILITY RIGHTS IN BANGLADESH
Mahbub Kabir· Bangladesh as a country with a population size of 150 million has had a pledge to promote an inclusive, barrier-free and rights-based society for its 15 million persons with disabilities. The commitment previously used to be non-obligatory in nature, however, it is in the form of legal bindings now with the ratification of Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Heart of the issue is to uphold a political commitment to the country’s 10 per cent population and to the international community that respects the spirit of an inclusive and rights-based society, which welcomes everyone’s participation in social change process, i.e., in development including persons with disabilities who have historically been denied the opportunities of development participation in Bangladesh. Accomplishments of development plans have so far ended up with frustrations as those have been leaving behind many social categories who lack power and do not have control over resources and decision-making processes. Persons with disabilities constitute the majority of such excluded groups. Their aspiration for a change is not respected and their interests are not protected and safeguarded with legal measures. Cultural beliefs define them as untouchables and depicts as a symbol of misery, social standards do not allow them a normal living and fulfilling life, opportunities of economic participation is closed, spaces of political participation and decision making are already occupied by the powerful segments of the society. Thus, the institutions have already denied the full participation of persons with disabilities in every spheres of the society. Globally, persons with disabilities have been advocating to make society free from those cultural, social, economic and political barriers so that they can participate everywhere in the society on an equal basis with others. International communities paid respect to the appeal for a healthy and equitable growth of the society and for greater human rights promotion. Bangladesh, being part of the international community has joined forces with those slogans, but the change in the local context is rare! What are the reasons behind? The article intends to underscore some of the factors active as fundamental cause to resist change in favour of persons with disabilities, the forgotten ten percent in Bangladesh. There are debates on whether the persons with disabilities are in a movement or just [participating in some projects with variuous donor-driven interests, however, disability movement in Bangladesh comes across some broad-based common experiences of challenges, these are: - Apathetic attitude of the state apparatuses to respond to the issue, especially when the question is about equal rights and dignity of persons with disabilities. The governments give the impression to be proactive in signing on almost all the international treaties to promote, protect and fulfill rights of persons with disabilities, but ends up nonchalant when it comes about the implementation of those commitments; - Existing national policies and legislations do not support persons with disabilities in attaining their full human rights and dignity. Disability issues perceived by the government, NGOs and even the organisations of the persons with disabilities virtually represents a narrow and compartmentalized perspective, which is predominantly biased to charity and clinical school of thought, which leads to a clinical and welfare-oriented solutions; - The issue is not considered under the mainstream development agenda until now and not a development priority in the country as well. State bureaucracy in the name of ‘Rules of Business’ functions as a strong barrier to bring the issue under mainstream development exercises. The state officially perpetuates ‘charity’ as the solution to disability issues and reinforces compartmentalization; - Shifting the disability paradigm from a needs-based to rights-based approach still remains as a theoretical area of interest to most of the stakeholders concerned. Promoting rights-based approach to disability is not an uncomplicated task, especially when it is about changing the mindset of age-old bureaucracy, where the pace of change does not take place very fast. - Wider community and mass people are not aware about the issue. Stigma and stereotypes construct a negative image of persons with disabilities that is predominant in all spheres of the society. In Bangladesh, official perception of the issues of disability is close to a disease or an illness in a human body associated with its image of vulnerability. This is reflected in the only national law exists for the persons with disabilities called “Disability Welfare Act 2001”, which depicts persons with disabilities from a clinical perspective and therefore, suggests clinical and welfare-oriented solution to the issue. However, the country has a vibrant disability movement both in rural and urban contexts and good civil society support in favour of equal rights of persons with disabilities. But, for the last two decades at least, very few things have moved ahead. Ministry of Social Welfare is still enjoying the sole responsibility of carrying out almost everything about disability. The Ministry, by description of itself, exists to promote the ideals of welfare and charity in the society. The agenda set out for this particular ministry are to carry out official activities to do mercy or to show pity on particular groups of citizens in the country. On the contrary, the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh upholds the equal rights and dignity of all segments of citizens. Disability movement, thus, appeals for renaming the Ministry and reframing its agenda. After a long discussion, it is only few days back, the stone started to move, but very sluggish in nature. In the name of ‘rules of business’, which is basically the job descriptions of different ministries, the issues of persons with disabilities have been compartmentalised under the welfare package. The question thus remains on how we are going to ensure disability as a development agenda and make sure that persons with disabilities are guaranteed to participate in all types of social, cultural, economic and political activities without any discrimination, which was the premise of a barrier-free society. How Bangladesh is going to fulfill its commitment to promote such a society having its compartmentalised practice and standards intact and without any cultural transformation in the country? Will it just remain as a rhetoric? Where is the resource to implement the programmes necessary to facilitate the social transformation in the national budgets? Coming to a consensus with the UNESCAP-formulated regional policy resolution called ‘Biwako Millennium Framework for Action’ and to promote the agenda under the framework was able to create an environment in the country to talk about the equal rights of persons with disabilities. Disability movement envisaged a paradigm shift from a needs-based approach towards a rights-based approach to deal with the issues of disability and development. Core issues of advocacy were to consider persons with disabilities as complete human being with development needs, not just an object of clinical intervention and charity, to promote rights of women with disabilities, take the issues of children with disabilities and their educational needs in equal consideration, promotion of self-help organisations of persons with disabilities etc. Following many consultations, meetings and advocacy initiatives, the government has come out with a comprehensive plan on disability and development. The National Foundation on Disability in Development popularly known as JPUF in Bangladesh has been re-structured and a person with disability with outstanding qualification and track record of leadership has been appointed as its Managing Director through an open competition. A National Action Plan has been approved by the cabinet, which has distributed the activities related to disability among various ministries and departments quite comprehensively. But, the tragedy remains with the resource allocation. National budget, for the last consecutive years, have kept the issue under the social safety net, i.e., the perpetual charity regime. The government of Bangladesh became one of the pioneering country to fully ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and its Optional Protocol. Therefore, disability movement has naturally expected a reflection of the commitment in the current national budget that the issue has been shifted to development from its perpetual charity box. Unfortunately, apart from the puzzle of budget statement, which declared BDT 150 crore (about USD 22 million) allocated for Disability Foundation, nothing new came out so far. The allocation of resources still remains under the traditional matrix of social safety net. Therefore it is question of time that how the government is going to uphold its commitment to implement the CRPD obligations. National Forum of Organisaitons Working with the Disabled alias NFOWD has been working in close relationship with the government to support it technically. Amendment of ‘Rules of Business’ of the government was a long-term advocacy agenda of the Forum, which has created an interesting story, which would be worth-mentioning to serve the purpose of this article. The proposition of amendment, which NFOWD submitted to the Ministry of Social Welfare, the lead ministry on disability issues has been traveling from one ministry to another for the last two years to get their supports. Ministry of Women and Children Affairs, like many other ministries for instance, raised questions before they agreed on the amendment that ‘why the issues of disabled women should come under this ministry? They fall under the ministry of social welfare.’ There should be specific focus and investment to shift the traditional mindset of the government officials, which is barely done. The persons with disabilities are forgotten development target of both the government and NGOs in Bangladesh. We live in a country where the children with disabilities are not allowed to enroll themselves in the ordinary schools in general, employment rate of adult persons with disabilities is very insignificant, the state has never bothered to count their heads so that they come under the national planning processes, women with disabilities are not considered as women, or else there could have been at least a project for this group under the business of the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs. Apart from those, there are laws to humiliate persons with disabilities, e.g., the Lunacy Act of 1912, the Property and Inheritance Act, which work not in favor of equal treatment and protection of human rights of persons with disabilities. There is no law to protect and promote rights and dignity of persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others. By ratification, the government is supposed to formulate a new law in line with the CRPD principles and purposes, which is far away from the trends of national resource allocation and prioritisation of the agenda. Persons with disabilities are not a homogenous category. There are children, boys and girls, rich and poor, women and men of various age groups in various contexts. There are persons with physical, mental, intellectual and sensory impairments, who confront social and environmental barriers that hinder their equal participation in the society. They are a diverse social category with diversity in needs and interests and unity to experience sheer poverty and injustice. Therefore, formulating a one-off and linear solution to the issue may not ensure a successful result. A classic example could be the “Integrated Education for Blind Students project” in Bangladesh, which rather promoted gender-inequality as its by-product while is intended to promote education for the boy students with visual impairments. A comprehensive development plan has to consider the factors of rural-urban continuum, age, gender, cross-disability issues and fundamentally the aspects of poverty and social injustice. This requires a holistic planning of programmes and allocation of resources correspondingly. Finance Advisor in his budget speech for the year 2007-’08 declared very specifically that “the government has taken up a comprehensive programme to ensure the rights of the disabled and disadvantaged communities...Implementation of a comprehensive work plan for the welfare of the disabled is underway through various ministries.” Unfortunately, the nature of resource allocation still remains under its charity-box. The motto of the budget was to rather to provide with allowances to this group of people as passive benefit-recipients, not offering them an opportunity to participate actively in a development process. In the current fiscal year of 2008-’09, no single allocation is made in major development sectors like education, health, employment etc. Moreover, there is no budgetary allocation to implement the work plan, which is distributed in various ministries. There is nothing to carry out the commitment made to promote the plan. Formulation of a poverty reduction strategy (PRSP) has consecutively forgotten to include disability as an agenda. Disability movement of Bangladesh has constantly reminded the authority along with offering technical support in this regard. The issue, as it is observed so far, has not been very popular to the planning authority and the officials concerned. Moreover, Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) is the sole authority to produce national statistics, which becomes the basis for planning. BBS has not produced any valid data to substantiate any national planning process with a respect to the citizens with disabilities. Yet, there are many examples that can be presented as good steps to march ahead towards designing a barrier-free society. For example: signing and ratification of CRPD and its Optional Protocol, ensuring National ID card for persons with disabilities, formulation of an Action Plan to ensure mainstreaming of the issue, appointment of Disability Focal Points in different ministries, departments and directorates of the government etc. But in terms of resource allocation, the experience is the same in every year¾ the shadow of that old traditional trend of welfare. What is the fundamental reason behind such apathetic attitude of the state, which does not take the issue earnestly? Is it because the persons with disabilities constitute a minority group and are not organised as political force? Because, for the other social groups organised and having greater political influence there are adequate budgetary allocations and they are included in the mainstream development processes. In a country like Bangladesh with predominantly a resource-poor setting, why the development plan remains exclusive in nature? Whose interest does it intend to serve anyway? Majority non-disable groups? Where is the legal obligation of the government, which has a Constitution of its own and in addition to that has ratified almost all the international treaties including the latest CRPD? Inclusive development does not necessarily dependent exclusively on money and budgets. Rather, it is about understanding the development aspirations of its citizenry from a holistic perspective and more specifically to pay due respect to the human rights of the excluded groups of people to accomplish the greater development goal of a country. It is not an expensive venture, rather a cost-effective effort that concludes with an impression of fulfillment in development accomplishments. A fair allocation of national budget is no doubt important, but prior to that, setting the objective of development is important. Does it intend to reach out all the segments of society, or it wants a fragmented change in the society? Our commitments to the international communities and more importantly, to our own citizens would remain rhetoric until we act to respect the implications of those agreements, to shift the reality and ensure respect towards human rights and dignity of persons with disabilities like all others in the society. References and notes: · The author is the Director for Leonard Cheshire Disability and Development Bangladesh (LCDDB) and Convenor of CRPD Sub-Committee hosted by National Disability Forum (NFOWD). Opinion expressed in the article may not necessarily represent the positioning of the organisation or network he involves with. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org  According to WHO estimate, not based on any national statistics done so far in Bangladesh.  Agreeing with the propositions of the UN Standard Rules and Biwako Millennium Framework (BMF) for Action and BMF+5, UNESCAP;  Bangladesh has ratified CRPD as 8th ratifying country and its Optional Protocol  Allocation of Business of Different Ministries of Government of Bangladesh popularly known as ‘rules of business’, 1996  ‘Whose Voice We Count’, NGO Report on Mid-Term Review of BMF in Bangladesh, ActionAid and APIT, Bangladesh, 2007;  Article 27 and 28 of the Constitution of People’s Republic of Bangladesh pledge non-discrimination and equal rights of all citizens as fundamental rights;  Department of Social Services (DSS) of Government of Bangladesh runs the project.  In Bangladesh, presently it has a Caretaker Government. Advisors are running the Ministries, therefore the Advisor for Ministry of Finance is holding the authority of the Minister for Finance Ministry.  Budget Speech 2007-08, Advisor, Ministry of Finance, Government of Bangladesh, http://www.mof.gov.bd/mof2/budget/07_08/budget_speech/07_08_en.pdf  Theme Paper entitled, “ Allocation in National Budget to implement the CRPD and the Reality” presented in a national seminar by NFOWD, Dhaka, 28 August 2008  Last National Census of BBS tells us about the figure to be less than 1%, which has been rejected by the disability movement and others in the country.